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Jay-Z (right), a man of letters and law.
Southwestern Law Professor Caleb Mason says that for a mere $1.29 on iTunes, Jay Z's 99 Problems offers some of the cheapest, most comprehensive advice you can find on how to handle a traffic stop if you have cocaine hidden in a secret compartment in your car's skylight (or, hypothetically, in your trunk).
Mason's new paper in the journal of the Saint Louis University School of Law focuses on the song's second verse:
The year is ‘94 and in my trunk is raw / In my rearview mirror is the motherf--king law / I got two choices y’all, pull over the car / Or bounce on the double put the pedal to the floor / Now I ain’t trying to see no highway chase with jake / Plus I got a few dollars, I can fight the case / So I . . . pull over to the side of the road / And I heard, “Son, do you know what I’m stopping you for?” / “Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low? / Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know / Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo'?” / “Well you was doing 55 in a 54 / License and registration and step out of the car / Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are” / “I ain’t stepping out of sh--, all my papers legit" / "Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?" / "Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back / and I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that" / "Aren’t you sharp as a tack, some type of lawyer or something / or somebody important or something?" / "Nah, I ain’t pass the bar, but I know a little bit / Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit" / "We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9s come" / I got 99 problems but a b--ch ain’t one
There are many lessons from the verse; Mason zones in on three:
- Line: "I got two choices y'all, pull over the car / Or bounce on the double, put the pedal to the floor / Now I ain't trying to see no highway chase with a jake / Plus, I got a few dollars, I can fight the case"
Lesson: Don't run
This seems obvious, but for many Angeleno motorists, it's not. L.A.'s TV news stations would be far different viewing experiences if everybody just pulled over, as the all-knowing J-Hova instructs. Mason says that, legalistically, stopping is the way to go — at least if you have "a few dollars" and can get a hold of a good lawyer. If you pull over, the cop might not find your contraband (and if he or she does, you've got all kinds of legal defenses based on the Fourth Amendment's ban on illegal search and seizure). If you run — with the exception of places with police departments with "no chase" policies, like Washington DC — and you get caught, you're sunk and they will search every inch of that car and find the drugs. Also, you could die. Mason writes the US Supreme Court "recently held that the Fourth Amendment permits the use of deadly force to terminate high-speed chases." In that case, a driver who didn't stop was rammed by police at 85 mph, spun into a tree and died. Justices "watched the dashboard camera video and pronounced the response reasonable."
- Line: "And I heard, 'Son, do you know what I’m stopping you for?' / 'Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low? / Do I look like a mind reader, sir? I don’t know'"
Lesson: Don't admit guilt
If an officer asks if you know why you've been stopped, they're asking you, essentially, to admit guilt. Saying "I don't know" is a good choice if you're looking to fight the ticket or charge. It's also a good line if you've got drugs hidden in your car and think the officer might find them. That's because police need a reason to pull you over, and if that reason, say speeding, turns out to be something you're innocent of, then all subsequent searches of your car and other ensuing events become legally questionable.
- Line: "Am I under arrest or should I guess some mo'?/ 'Well, you was doing 55 in a 54/ License and registration and step out of the car / Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are' / 'I ain’t stepping out of sh--, all my papers legit' / 'Do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?' / 'Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back, and I know my rights so you go’n need a warrant for that"
Lesson: "Am I under arrest?" is a good question
Police can arrest you for a traffic offense, says Mason, including going one mile per hour over the speed limit. If you're under arrest, the officer can then search you and your car. If you're not under arrest, the officer is going to need other reasoning to search your car. First, and easiest, is consent, which most people give, surrendering their Fourth Amendment rights in the process. Next, lacking consent, it takes "probable cause" to search a car for drugs, but "frisking" a car on the premise of looking for guns is much easier. If an officer has "reasonable suspicion" you're armed — which could mean you fit some sort of "profile" of a person who might be armed, like "drug dealer" — the officer might be able to say that your race, dress and age might be enough. However, a "frisk" doesn't include digging into locked areas of the car, or a secret compartment in your skylight. However: Jay Z is wrong on one point here. If the officer asks you to "step out" of your car, you best do so.
Full paper below.